Saturday, 15 October 2016

5 March 1881 - 'Female Names' No.3 - 'Edith'

Yes, there have been two previous 'Female Names' papers, but this is the name of my favourite Crawley sister, so we are skipping right to it, especially omitting name number one, as this is my blog. (Okay, I will transcribe the others too if anybody wants me to, just email me or leave a comment.) 

How very little most of us think of our Christian names! Yet, if we would only see it, every name is a little poem in itself, and every name contains a moral lesson which we all of us should be the better for attending to. Our name may, it is true, have been given to us somewhat at haphazard; we may have been called after one of our godparents or relatives, or possibly after some illustrious personage. Or again a name may have been chosen because it is pretty or romantic. But however we may have come by our Christian name, we cannot change it, much as we may wish to, so let us make the best of it, and try to learn what we can about its meaning and its associations.

It is a good sign that at the present day we are returning to our fine old English names once more; we have done with the Letitias, Euphemias, Clarissas, Arabellas, and Sophonisbas of the last century, and even such names as Julia and Amelia are becoming less common every year. We consider this a very decided improvement, for why should we go to Latin or Greek for names when our own English tongue supplies us with such a variety of beautiful appellations? Our surnames are  for the most part pure English, and  for the future let our Christian names be English likewise.

Surely such a name as that of Edith is not inferior in sound to any grandiloquent classical appellation, and it has the advantage of being pure Anglo-Saxon, and of possessing a most beautiful meaning. The earliest form of the name may sound somewhat harsh to modern ears, but to those who first used it the meaning it conveyed was so apparent as to atone for any defect in the sound. Eadgyth, as the name was first written, meant "a noble gift," and was a name very frequently given to the princesses of the West Saxon Royal house. Indeed, our early kings were very fond of the first syllable of this name, and it occurs in a great many of the Royal cognomens. Thus we have three kings before the Conquest called Ead-ward, two Ead-munds, one Ead-wig, and one Ead-gar, and besides these there are found such names as Ead-ric, Ead-bald, and Ead-bert among the various members of the Royal house. This prefix ead, then, was a widely used one, and very beautiful it is, signifying "noble," "pleasant," "happy," "prosperous." And so when a fair daughter was born to one of our Anglo-Saxon kings, he often called her Ead-gyth, "the noble gift from God," just as the Greeks gave their children the name of Dorothea. Of these early Ead-gyths, or Ediths, the most famous were the daughter of Edward the Elder, who became the wife of the mighty Emperor Otto the Great; and the daughter of King Edgar whose holy life and good deeds earned for her the title of Saint Edith. The wife of the Confessor was Edith, daughter of Earl Godwine, whose virtues were praised by English and Normans alike. The latter, who hated Godwine, because he had once driven all the Normans out of England, made a verse which said that as a rose springs from a thorn, so had Edith sprung from Godwine. Of another Edith, whose beauty gave her the name of Swan's-neck, it is told that she, and she alone, recognised the body of her lover Harold as he lay dead on the fatal field of Hastings.

When the Normans got hold of England, of course all English names were dropped, and instead of Edwards and Harolds we find Roberts and Williams, and so strange did the English names seem that when Edith of Scotland, who was the niece of Edgar Etheling, was brought into England to be married to King Henry, her name was changed to Matilda, or Maud, which was as favourite an appellation with the Normans as Edith had been with the Anglo-Saxons. So that we must not forget that the real name of "Good Queen Maud" was Edith. Many are the stories told by the old chroniclers of her piety and her charity, how she washed the feet of the poor, and tended the lepers, relieved the wretched and studied to increase her holiness. Everyone who saw her was the better  for the sight, and when she died the whole nation mourned as if each man had lost his mother.

Of Edith, King Edgar's daughter, a story is told which shows her to have possessed a degree of common sense in religious matters very uncommon in those days. She possessed a natural love for fair attire, for which he was one day rebuked by a monk, who thought by his untidiness and slovenliness to manifest his great devotion and unworldliness. But Edith quickly answered that she thought a mind might be as pure and devout under seemly raiments as beneath tattered rags.

From the time of Good Queen Maud we hardly meet with any Ediths till we come to the present century when the grand old name began to be revived, and we find Charles Lamb, after enumerating some fashionable names of the day, declare, "These all than Saxon Edith please me less." Since his time Edith has gradually been getting into favour, and it bids fair to be, as it really deserves to be, one of the most popular of our female names. All those girls who bear the name should never forget its meaning, and should try to be in reality happy, blessed gifts to their parents, while from "Saint" Edith and from Good Queen Maud they may learn lessons which are not altogether unneeded in our day.

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